Ruby, the Phoenix Zoo's Asian elephant, died last month when her pregnancy went awry, and the city got the blues. Ruby had lived here almost 25 years--longer than most of us--and she'd become famous as one of the world's most unlikely painters. Her works raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the zoo. She was a landmark in a city with few enduring icons.
The city was soggy with tears. The outpouring of grief--the candlelight vigils, flowers, cards and poetry--came in a deluge. You'd have thought Princess Diana had died all over again. The zoo almost tripled its attendance record at the free day dedicated to Ruby's memory when 43,000 people showed up.
I heard of Ruby's death on a Friday afternoon at work, raced for the Kleenex box, and, driving home that night, I sobbed along to "Goodbye Ruby Tuesday" on the radio and wished I owned one of Ruby's paintings. For days, I couldn't hear her name without getting misty. Alas, poor Ruby. Cut short in her prime. Robbed by fate of the joy of motherhood.
I felt real bad.
But I was about to feel worse. I was about to speak to Dale Jamieson.
Dale Jamieson is the Henry R. Luce Professor in Human Dimensions of Global Change at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. He teaches environmental studies courses with titles like "American Environmental Thought," and, for the past 13 years, he's been a thorn in the paw of the North American zoo community, challenging its concept of zoos in general and criticizing specific zoo practices--like the breeding of captive Asian elephants.
Based on Jamieson's beliefs, Ruby shouldn't have died. She shouldn't have been bred in the first place. According to him, Ruby shouldn't have lived at the zoo, let alone become a renowned pachyderm painter.
Here's what Jamieson believes: Elephants don't belong in captivity. We don't have the right to keep them for our entertainment. There's no educational value in seeing them in zoos. There is no humane way to keep elephants in captivity. And particularly pertinent to Ruby, there is no biological reason to breed them in captivity.
"The reason that zoos like yours breed elephants has very little to do with any endangered species issues. It has to do with the fact that baby elephants bring people to zoos," he says.
Jamieson is not alone. Anti-zoo activists are sprinkled across the country. I found them in university English departments, veterinary practices, even in zoos. But they're not always willing to speak up.
"Zoos are extremely popular institutions in the public mind, and they like to portray anybody who's critical as being against fun," Jamieson explains. "It's like being against football."
Of course, the sober activists are facing down the entire weepy-eyed population of metropolitan Phoenix, not to mention Ruby's devastated zookeepers, when they take such diehard stands. But a closer look at their arguments raises valid questions about the wisdom of training wild elephants to paint, dance, live in cages or breed in captivity. Real elephants, it appears, aren't very much like Babar or Dumbo at all. And perhaps we, her biggest fans, owe Ruby an apology.
In the wild, Asian elephants travel in matriarchal herds of up to 200, migrating as many as 25 miles a day. They're highly social. Often a herd will contain three or four generations.
Little is known of Ruby's origins. Only a shipping receipt remains from her arrival in Phoenix. She was taken from her mother in a Thai logging camp at 7-months-old, and arrived in a wooden crate at Sky Harbor airport in February 1974. She and the crate weighed a total of 360 pounds. At her death, Ruby weighed 9,000 pounds.
Initially, Ruby's home was a 20 foot by 30 foot pen. For many years she lived alone, except for visits from her keepers, who exercised her inside the pen, and chained her front legs to walk her around the zoo. Her artistic career began after her keepers saw Ruby scribbling in the dirt with a stick and offered her a brush and paint. Eventually, she moved into larger quarters with two African elephants. African and Asian elephants are different species and as the three grew older, it became apparent that fights would break out if they weren't separated. Ruby's keepers decided she needed the fellowship of her own kind. The Asian elephant's innate need for companionship, says current zoo executive director Jeff Williamson, was a primary factor in the decision to breed Ruby.
Warren Iliff, who now runs the Long Beach Aquarium in California, was the Phoenix Zoo's director at the time.
Initially, Iliff says, the zoo tried artificial insemination--a procedure that only recently worked for the first time.
When that failed, the zoo shipped Ruby to the Tulsa Zoo, to mate with a male Asian elephant named Sneezy. Very few male elephants are kept in American zoos, because almost no zoo is equipped to house a grown male. They are much larger and stronger than females, and very difficult to control. In the wild, they don't travel in packs with the females, but hang out on their own and show up when it's time to breed.
The decision to send Ruby to Oklahoma was not insignificant, Iliff admits. "I think it's tough for any animal to be moved around," he says. "They're very conservative, they get used to their home, and that's what they like. And when you move them around it just causes stress."
Elephants have died during transport, but Ruby survived easily. She was first housed with another female Asian elephant, but when the two didn't get along, the Tulsa Zoo moved her in with Sneezy. She became pregnant, and, after a two-year stay, returned to Phoenix. An older female Asian elephant was loaned to the zoo as company for the future mom.
All went well until shortly before Ruby was to give birth. She showed signs of labor, but the birthing didn't start. Eventually, the vets determined that her baby had died in her womb. The only option, albeit a risky one, was to perform a Caesarean section.
There has never been a successful C-section performed on an elephant. Ruby's uterus was the size of a Volkswagen. Think about it: For an average human C-section, doctors cut through tissue that's about an inch thick. On a horse, it's four or five inches thick. On an elephant, it's four or five feet thick.
When Ruby's C-section was performed, the veterinary team discovered that her uterus had ripped, and an infection had spread. The dead calf weighed 320 pounds--about twice the size of an average newborn elephant. Ruby was immediately euthanized.
The irony is that Ruby and her baby would not have been together long. Her baby was a male. Even if Ruby had survived childbirth, she and her calf would have been separated six years later. It would have been difficult--if not impossible--to find a home for the male, and Ruby would have been alone again.
So why breed Asian elephants?
Everyone, zoo professionals and anti-zoo activists alike, agrees that elephants are endangered, that their numbers are dropping precipitously as development encroaches upon their habitats. Since their numbers are dwindling worldwide, captive breeding for reintroduction in nature sounds reasonable.
But even the most avid supporters of captive breeding have recently retooled their shtick, admitting that elephant reintroduction is impossible. The rate of habitat destruction in both Asia and Africa is so high that it cannot sustain the few elephants that still roam free in those places.
Since 1880, there have been 115 Asian elephants born in captivity in North America. Thirty percent of them have died within their first 30 days. In the wild, that rate is 13 percent.
The main reason elephants are bred in this country is to keep them on display. Some conservation-minded zoologists believe that's the best way to educate people about the elephant and its plight and encourage them to help save elephant habitats.
That line of reasoning drives the anti-zoo folks nuts.
Jamieson says zoos can have a negative impact by placating people into thinking that animals are okay.
"And I don't think there's really any evidence to show that people who get off on watching elephants in the Phoenix Zoo then . . . do anything to protect elephants in natural habitats," he says.
Randy Malamud, an English professor at Georgia State University and the author of an anti-zoo book, Reading Zoos, has a macabre suggestion. "A more effective ecological message would be to go into a zoo and see dead animals--to see something that evokes the reality of what we're doing to them, what we're doing to their habitats, that we're encroaching on where they live and how they live for our consumerist pleasures."
But both men make the same point: The harsh reality is that it would take a tremendous sea change in our society, including real sacrifice, to save the Asian elephant--if it isn't too late already.
"If we're serious about saving the global environment and the critters that come with it, the answer isn't that you get all warm and fuzzy about the animals you see in the zoo," Jamieson says. The answer, he says, lies in reducing consumption, reducing population and with spending more American money to preserve habitats overseas.
If we aren't using captive breeding and zoos to boost the wild elephant population, and the education part of the equation is dubious, what does this add up to?
Torture, according to Paula Kislak, a Los Angeles veterinarian who sits on the board of the Elephant Alliance, an international nonprofit group devoted to elephant protection. Kislak would rather see elephants take their chances in their shrinking habitats than see them on display.
Kislak has a lot to say about Ruby's life at the Phoenix Zoo, in particular. For one thing, she's not down with the painting.
"It's an exploitation. There's no doubt. You might as well dress up a monkey and have them be an organ grinder."
And, Kislak says, Ruby should never have been shipped to Tulsa to be bred.
"For her to be transported to breed her is in my opinion inhumane and unethical," the vet says. "They don't have to be bred in order to fulfill some sort of psychological need, and they're usually just bred to make babies that can either be sold or used as an attraction to getting more people into the zoo."
I asked Kislak: But won't there come a day when there are no more Asian elephants in the wild?
"I don't have a problem if they become extinct particularly," she says, "because we can't and won't give them what they need to keep them happy and comfortable in captivity."
Was Ruby happy? We liked to think she was happy. But it's impossible to discern an animal's emotional state.
Dick George has worked at the Phoenix Zoo for 21 years. He began as a photographer, and his first job was to photograph Ruby. Over the years, he watched her paint 200 pictures and wrote a book about her.
But even George, who choked up several times during our conversation about Ruby, admits the elephant probably would have been happier in the wild.
"I think Ruby was a genius at adapting to the world that we imposed on her. It was not the way of life that evolution prepared for her. . . . Ruby was meant to wander a healthy rain forest. She never got that chance. But what she did was cope with us, and I think she was magnificent."
And, George adds, "Many of the people--and I'm one of them--who work at the zoo have great reservations about captivity in the first place."
Zoo director Jeff Williamson may be one of those, although he's obviously uncomfortable delving too deeply into such politically agitated waters.
Williamson observes that zoos have made great strides in the past 40 years, that even in the years Ruby lived at the Phoenix Zoo her enclosure was enlarged, her behavior enriched, and more things were learned about how to keep her comfortable.
He believes the zoo's role is education.
"The whole story about Ruby is about trying to talk to people in ways that cause them to respect all plants and animals for what they are," Williamson says.
But how much can people really learn from a painting elephant locked behind walls, half a world away from her homeland?
The painting, Williamson says, choosing his words slowly and carefully, "isn't necessarily something that we ought to try to replicate. . . . It doesn't mean anything. Painting is not a characteristic of Asian elephants."
In the end, the zookeeper and the anti-zoo activists have more in common than you might think. Williamson admits there's no way to replicate an elephant's natural habitat at the Phoenix Zoo, which houses more than 1,000 species on 125 acres. And, he admits, the education process is awfully difficult.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to Phoenix New Times's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Phoenix's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
"There aren't success stories, because as a culture we continue to live in ways that don't value the rest of life," he says.
But Williamson stops short at the notion that we should do away with zoos.
"I don't think zoos should go out of business," he says. "What they are has, is, and is going to evolve."
After all, the zookeeper says, "Things that don't change in step with their surroundings go extinct."
Contact Amy Silverman at 229-8443 or at her online address: email@example.com